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From some of her earliest childhood memories, Suzanne Goin had visions of food that were predicated by her family’s deep affinity for all things culinary. Food is a family passion that has been passed on to Suzanne, leading to the opening of two of L.A.’s most enduring and exhilarating restaurants, A.O.C. and Lucques, as well as The Hungary Cat, opened alongside husband David Lentz. Her commitment to freshness and creativity presents itself well on every page of her inspiring cookbook Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
Sitting down with Suzanne, one can sense the dynamic passion she has for her work and food in general. Her words can barely contain the excitement she has over finding the freshest locally grown ingredients, the discovery of using apricots instead of figs with a favorite dressing or the interest in an Old World tuber called a crone, that after three years of waiting is now available to her from one of her local farmers.
All of these passions shape the creative force that has allowed her to follow her dream through the turbulent ups and downs of the restaurant industry. On the verge of opening another restaurant in the Santa Barbara area, busy managing her existing restaurants and making television appearances, she still manages to find the time to enjoy the simplicity of a ripe persimmon.
Here are some of the things she had to say regarding her fruitful career.
Yogi Times: What inspires you when you approach food?
SG: The produce that I find at the farmer’s market and seeing what is grown locally. The challenge becomes trying to figure out what to do with the ingredients and to create exciting dishes that highlight the freshness of the flavors. I think about some of the things that I like and then look at regional traditions, historical dishes and old recipe books, tweaking them to give them a modern sensibility. Maybe finding a combination using a certain spice with a certain fruit or vegetable and thinking that’s cool and letting things spiral out from that. I think about my dishes as an ode to the ingredients and desire to bring a new taste to people.
My head is full of all these ideas that I don’t always know are there but then the ingredients will inspire it to come together. I take a holistic approach and am fond of discovering intriguing ingredients. When you work with food all the time you begin to learn that language. When the season's change, you refer to something you have done in the past and add a new note to it so the flavors are constantly adjusting.
YT: The discovery of these new ingredients must be an exciting process for you. How do you find the next product that brings intrigue to you?
SG: I find that traveling helps to feed the soul. To travel and taste and discover new ingredients. Even traveling locally, we have so many growing regions here in California, from Carpentaria in the north to San Diego in the south and even microcosms within those areas. The farmers love to share their knowledge and rise to the challenge when you ask them to grow something unique. This, in turn, allows us to bring new things to the restaurants.
It takes a while to build those connections with local growers and to forge those relationships. It also takes time to learn about the products, and as time goes on, it's important to keep those ties growing and maintain inspiration within that network.
YT: Your restaurants are a place to sit down and really savor the food experience. How do you create that place where it is not just food, but an all-encompassing evening?
SG: When we were younger, we always went to restaurants with our family and more than just the food, I used to notice the way the restaurant makes you feel. Going out was an event and we all knew that the potential existed for something special to happen.
The atmosphere, the ambience is an important part of the experience, whether it is the lighting, the buzz of the people or that magic of how the restaurant makes you feel when you are there. I had an appreciation for restaurants when I was very young; this realization that going out to eat was a special thing. It brings people together.
This is the feeling that we tried to recreate with Sunday night suppers, a place where people are able to create their own family feeling once they take the time to do it. We have regulars who come in all the time and bring their friends with them, which creates a sense of family and community. This is something that I really believe in and is something that I carried forward from my childhood, allowing people to share food and share companionship.
YT: Are there any unique family traditions that you carry forward for the holidays?
SG: My family actually sticks to pretty traditional holiday foods. We don’t have anything that stands out as unique, although these days my mom always says that she will do the cooking so I don’t have to. For myself, however, one of my favorite things is that time before you eat. When we are in the kitchen getting ready, preparing the meal together. Although my mom always says she will do the cooking for the holidays, I somehow always find my way into the kitchen to help. As long as I don’t have to do the shopping.
YT: What kind of food do you enjoy cooking for yourself?
SG: I love really simple, clean, tasty food. Often David and I will be happy with pasta with butter and cheese. Or taking a relaxing evening with wine, good cheese, and a simple salad. At our house, we don’t cook to impress each other. If anything, we like the time away from all of the restaurant food to just sit down and relax.
YT: You seem to be very integrated and centered. How do you manage?
SG: I definitely have my frazzled moments, but I have a great business partner who keeps me on track. To do this work you have to be committed, it has to be your love. You hear people opening restaurants for all kinds of reasons because they like food and they can cook well, but you have to love all of the challenges that go along with running a business. You can be a good cook and love food, but you have to love doing it so much that the challenges of dealing with the business side balance out. People ask how do you come up with all of these new ideas for dishes, but the cooking is the easy part. It can be really hectic to open and maintain a restaurant, but you have to devote yourself to the vision and keep yourself from getting bored. You have to keep, keep, keep, keep, giving.
In the restaurant business, you are so dependent on other people that you have to find people who believe in what you are doing. My job, four years, eight years into it is to be the person who keeps things together. You have to give your focus all the time or it can slip away in a second.
YT: What’s on your plate now?
SG: Well….I’m pregnant…with twins. It is a little bit of a life change and I’m excited. I don’t exactly know how it is all going to play out, but we tend to do things in twos. Two restaurants, two cats and now two kids. I get to start working on my purées. It’s going to be a crazy adventure.